The Chechen jihadist fighter has achieved near-legendary status in the last decade-plus. “Chechen” has become synonymous with “militarily competent jihadist.” Any time coalition forces have met jihadists on the battlefield who maneuver and shoot well, they are presumed to be Chechens. In 2005, the effective insurgent snipers in Iraq were all presumed to be Chechens.
Yet, for all this mythologizing (unless the sniper was caught, there was nothing but rumors that the shooters were Chechens), it is indisputable that the Chechen jihad has made its mark on the jihad as a whole, particularly the Sunni Salafist jihad. The most visible representative of this fact at the moment is Abu Omar al Shishani, one of Daash’s field commanders.
Born Tarkhan Batirashvili, al Shishani rose to prominence in the Syrian Civil War, appearing in multiple Daash videos fighting the Assad regime, as well as other, rival rebel groups. Reported killed at least three times in the last year, he keeps surviving and resurfacing, most recently in Anbar, and Rudaw is now reporting that he is being moved to head the assault on Kobani.
Al Shishani did not see his first combat in Syria, however. Born in the Pankisi Gorge, he joined the Georgian Army and served in a reconnaissance unit in the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. His former commander said he was quite proficient in the field, and he was promoted to sergeant before being medically mustered out in 2010 for tuberculosis.
While al Shishani (which literally means “The Chechen”) did not see action against the Russians in Chechnya, he is only the latest in a line of Chechen fighters going back to the 1994 Russian-Chechen war. The initial war only went from 1994 to the Russian retreat in 1996, but by then the Islamist element had embedded itself, and guerrilla war leading up to the 1999 war produced more veterans.
The bulk of the Chechen population, while Muslim, have always been Sufi, a sect historically persecuted by their co-religionists for their separation of political and religious spheres. The Chechen population before 1994 was not terribly receptive to the message of jihad promulgated by Sunni Salafists, and in fact, the separatist movement led by Dzhokhar Dudayev was purely nationalistic; there was no religious element involved. It was only when an Al Qaeda operative known as Ibn al-Khattab came with assistance that the Chechen war became a religious one.
Essentially, what happened in Chechnya was the co-opting of a nationalist movement by a transnational ideological one. The fact that the Chechens were Muslim was a side factor to the Chechen nationalists themselves, but it became the wedge that got Al Qaeda through the door. While the Chechens generally found the foreign mujahideen to be less than useful in places—only a few of them spoke Russian—this is not all that different from the Taliban’s uneasy relationship with the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda operatives also took advantage of the fact that the Russians were hammering the Chechens at first, as the Chechens were extremely poor and had little in the way of weapons or equipment.
While the Chechens as a whole remain Sufi, the presence of Al Qaeda as allies since the ’90s has resulted in plenty of Chechen fighters who have subscribed in full to the Sunni Salafist creed. Many of them have military experience, either from Georgia—like Abu Omar al Shishani—or from fighting the Russians in Chechnya. It appears that the Chechen fighters have developed a military culture closer to the Russian one than the Arab, which would tend to contribute to their reputation of higher effectiveness on the battlefield. While many of the unconfirmed reports of “there’s somebody nasty out there, he’s probably Chechen” may be mythology, the fact remains that there are effective Chechen fighters and commanders fighting internationally in the name of jihad.
None of this is to say that Daash’s current success is solely due to the presence of Abu Omar al Shishani. One commander cannot account for a well-planned, well-executed maneuver and guerrilla-warfare campaign like Daash has been executing in Syria and Iraq. The depths of factors behind Daash’s present military success have yet to be plumbed, but the Chechen factor does play a part.